Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Steanso's Cycling Observations

So most of you who occasionally read this blog are aware of the fact that this year I bought a bike and started riding it around town.  I bought my first bike in March.  I'm still pretty darn new to riding, so maybe I will eventually look back at this post and just shake my head at my own B.S., but I just wanted to write down a few impressions as I settle into it as an activity/pastime/hobby.  Lots of other people seem to have entire blogs dedicated to biking, so I figured that maybe you guys could indulge me in a post here or there about something that I enjoy.  

This was the first bike that I bought in my adult life.  It was a La Jolla cruiser with only one gear.  It was from Wal Mart, and it cost just under $100.  I had been wanting a new bike for a while.  I wasn't really looking for a bicycle out of any desire to become a serious cyclist, and I really wasn't even looking to buy one as a means of getting into shape.  I mostly just wanted a bike because I thought that they looked like a lot of fun, and I wanted to find a way to get around town that would make me feel a little more connected to my city.  For the couple of years leading up to the purchase of the cruiser I had been watching with interest as more and more cyclists took to the streets of Austin.  It looked like a really cool activity, and I envied the way people were getting around town without having to sit behind windshields and windows while burning gas in their cars. 
My interest in bikes didn't stem solely out of a desire for transportation, nor from a simple desire for a pedalling workout.  It was those things and more.  I tend to be a city person.  I like the small details and nuances that let you know all kinds of things about the people around you when you're travelling around town.  I like looking at storefronts and smelling restaurants and seeing the way that people decorate their yards.  I like the sports and recreation in the parks, and I like coming across festivals and parades and marathons and the many other things that go on around town on the weekends.  I like passing by people with a wave and seeing their reactions, whether it be a smile, a nod, a wave, or no reaction at all.  I like weather and wind. I don't mind walking, but it just takes a while to walk places, and you can cover more area and see more things on a bike.  I wanted something that could turn a quick run to the store into a bit of exercise but still remain a little more practical than taking the time to walk.
I think I also like bicycles and the idea of bicycles because they're relatively simple in a mechanical sense.  I know that a bunch of bicycle enthusiasts will want to jump down my throat for calling bicycles simple, and I know that modern bikes involve some meticulous engineering in terms of  advanced materials, well planned mechanics, and precise interaction between components.  When I call bikes simple, though, I really mean it as a compliment.  We live in a world filled with computer gadgets, digital technology, and highly sophisticated, inscrutable doohickies.  Modern cars have rearview cameras, fuel injectors, and automatic braking systems.  In some cases computers will parallel park for you.  Our phones access the internet, hold libraries of music, and listen to human speech so that they can answer our questions.  Our music players routinely hold gigabytes of data.  The everyday pieces of technology that we rely upon utilize the controlled movement of electrons and are built by people with a functional understanding of quantum physics.  We have surrounded ourselves with an environment filled with devices that most laypeople will never really understand.  As a guy who came of age when our first home computer was an 8 bit machine (no lie- Commodore VIC-20) and when remote controls were still a rarity, I'll admit to occasionally feeling alienated by living in a world filled with things that I primarily understand only in a sort of quasi magical sense.
With bikes, even when they're pretty advanced, it's far easier to see how form meets function.  You might have expensive shock absorbers, but you can still see how they work as they bounce up and down and the springs operate.  You can observe how the brake applies pressure to the disc and brings you to a stop.  You can see the chain shifting up and down through the gears and you can see the derailleur move the chain.  You pedal so the crankset moves which moves the chain which moves the wheel which moves the bike.  Simple.  Elegant.  Even if you don't know what sort of alloy your frame is made out of or the exact material in your disc brake pads, you're still going to be able to see that your frame is intact and see whether the brakes are stopping you (or failing to stop you) when you squeeze the handles.  Bikes are a piece of technology that remain relatively straightforward in a world where so many things around us are becoming less and less understandable all the time.  There's something about that which is very attractive.
I sort of dipped my feet into the bike world with a cheap cruiser because, frankly, I wasn't sure whether I was in good enough shape to really be able to enjoy a bicycle and make good use of it.  I knew I wanted to be one of those people who was having fun pedaling around town, but I'm a big guy, so I wasn't sure how well the ruggedness of a bike would hold up for me.  Also, even though I had begun to exercise and work out (mostly just using my elliptical at home), I wasn't sure how capable I would be when it came to getting around. 
But the cruiser turned out to be a lot of fun!  It didn't fit me very well, and it only had the one gear, but I was able to ride around my neighborhood fairly easily.  I did some pedalling and got my bike balance back (untested since childhood) while getting used to dealing with traffic. I learned where some of the hills and elevation changes were in South Austin, and I learned about my physical limitations as well as the limits of my bike.  I took small trips to different stores.  I went to pick up breakfast tacos.  I even rode downtown on my little cruiser, although I hopped the bus for the uphill trip home (still a valuable experience as I learned more about the bus routes and bus bike racks).  I rarely rode very far, but I got a little bit of confidence and actually felt myself getting a little stronger the more I rode. 
That inexpensive La Jolla cruiser is still a fun ride.  It really doesn't fit me (my legs are too long for it), but it has held up really well in terms of being a cheap cycle that has been able to haul my large self around town without breaking (including my shifting weight as I struggled up and down hills in one gear).
Toward the end of June I'd finally convinced myself that the bike thing wasn't just a passing phase.  I was ready for a bike that fit me a little better and had a few more gears.  In late June I bought a Giant (specifically, a Revel 0) with an XXL frame.  The Giant has been nice.  It lets me stretch out my legs (which used to get stiff after riding on the cruiser for too long), and it has more gears for climbing hills.  It also just feels sturdier, so I have more confidence when riding a little harder and faster.
I ride much further now, but my distances still don't really amount to much when compared to more serious cyclists (especially compared to cyclists on road bikes).  Still, the exercise is good for me, and I really enjoy the experience.  I'm pretty much just a city rider.  I always wear a helmet.  Amy worries about me getting brain damage, so I always stick with the helmet.  I have a thing called a Headsweat cool cap which goes under my helmet and helps evaporate some of the sweat so it doesn't run down my face (it actually helps- it's sort of like Under Armour for your head).  Prior to the cool cap I sweated so much that I corroded my shifter cables.  I still sweat a lot, but I use wrist bands and the cap, and I've learned to apply teflon lube to the parts of the bike that are more susceptible to corrosion.  Sometimes I listen to music while I ride.  Amy isn't a big fan of this practice because she says I won't hear approaching cars, but I keep the music turned down low so I can still hear the traffic.  I don't listen to music all of the time, but it's really fun while riding around, and I think sometimes it helps keep me motivated when I'm tired.
I have a cycle computer.  I try not to fixate on distances, but I can't help being curious about how far I'm going.  The danger is that once you start counting miles, you won't think a ride is worth your time if you're not riding far enough.  I try not to fall into that trap.  The little trips really add up, and on many days they're all I have time for.  I semiregularly take short trips to the store and ride around my neighborhood, even when I'm not going very far.  These short trips usually put me in a good mood, stretch my legs, and, although they aren't exactly intense, they're still much better exercise than just taking the car in order to run short errands.
I don't wear bicycle clothes because: a) they're designed to help racers cut down on wind resistance, and I'm not racing, b) I think changing in and out of bike clothes is just an extra step that would make me less likely to get out of the house and go ride my bike, and c) I think I would look silly in them.  I know some people really love their bike outfits, and more power to them, but I just find it odd when I see people riding around on city streets in racing bike outfits.  If you're doing a 50 or 75 mile rise out in the country and you really need to make yourself more aerodynamic in order to conserve energy, that's one thing, but when you're just pedaling around the city for 10 or 15 miles, stopping at corners and intersections to avoid the cars, cycling outfits don't seem to make all that much sense to me.  I like to be able to stop off in stores or restaurants if I want (or sometimes my brother's house).  I keep a clean, unsweaty shirt in my handlebar bag, and it allows me to make stops pretty easily without feeling like I'm in an attention-grabbing uniform while just hanging out in some place for a while.  Other from that I just wear shorts.  Maybe I lack self confidence, but in a form fitting superhero style outfit I might just feel a little more awkward during a stop at Torchy's Tacos or Target.
What else?  I have a water bottle and a small air pump that both attach to the frame of my bike.  I have a small bag that fits over my handlebars and a small seatpost bag that sits underneath my seat.  I got the guys at University Cyclery to put a bigger seat on my bike before I ever even bought it.  I put a tire liner in one of the tires because I kept having problems with thorns poking holes in my tubes.  I also have front and back safety lights that provide a small amount of illumination at night, but which mostly keep me safer in terms of making sure I'm seen by traffic.
That's about it so far in terms of equipment.  I might eventually get a rack so I can put bags on the back of the bike, but so far, contrary to the advice that you'll get from most cyclists, I've been doing okay using just a backpack when I need to carry more stuff.  It bounces up and down a small amount, but not enough to be all that uncomfortable, and I'm fortunate enough to live in a location where I rarely have to go very far to get back from the store.
My equipment purchases have all arisen on an as needed basis, and I try not to go out looking for gadgets to buy that will make my hobby needlessly more expensive (which can be hard to resist- there's a lot of cool bike stuff out there).
I wish I could ride to work, but we don't have a shower at my office, and I need to get myself pretty cleaned up to go to court for my job. I keep reminding my boss (who also rides) about hwo cool it would be to have a shower at work. They're supposed to renovate our building in a year or two, so maybe...
Despite my initial concerns, the fact that I'm a bigger guy hasn't seemed to cause me too many problems so far in terms of wear and tear on the bike (big ol' knock on wood there).  I've had some problems with some tires going flat sort of regularly (which is a major drag), and I think that my heavier than average self probably contributes to those problems by putting extra pressure on my inner tubes.  Like I said, though, I've been experimenting with tube liners and other things that can help deal with the problem.  I'm also sort of keeping an eye on my bike's shock absorbers to see how they hold up.  I can partially lock them out, but they don't lock out completely, and I am tall and big, so they're going to get some heavier than usual strain.  I have an XXL frame on my bike, but that having been said, I'm looking to get a new, high rise stem for my handlebars.  I'm 6'7" tall, so even with the larger bike frame I still find myself hunched over into a position which causes some stiffness in my back when I take a longish ride.  I'm hoping that a slightly higher stem will correct that issue. 

So that's it.  I like riding.  I still use my elliptical and try to get other kinds of exercise, but I think the biking has been healthy.  I've definitely gotten to know the streets and neighborhoods of South Austin a lot better since I started.  Riding makes me feel better.  Physically I think it's helped me get into better shape, and emotionally it works great as a stress reliever and happiness generator.  I don't use the bike often enough as a commuting alternative to see it really having any enviromental impact, but maybe I'll get there at some point.
I ride by myself a lot, and I enjoy having the time to just ride around and clear my head.  I also ride with Amy, and I enjoy that, too, but for different reasons.  When I ride with Amy, it feels like more of a cooperative activity where we try to look out for each other and figure out which direction we want to go.  It's nice to have someone to ride with and talk to about stuff.  It's even nicer, of course, to have that person be Amy.

One of the biggest positive effect that I've felt as a result of biking, and this is something which is hard to describe in logical, objective terms, is that riding has made me feel more connected to my town and my community.  I know my way around my side of town better in terms of the streets and sidewalks and pathways.  I know some of the kids and dogs that play in front of certain houses.  I see changes that people have made to their yards and homes.  There are various people that I regularly wave to as they sit on their porch or take walks.  I know how to navigate around bus stops and pedestrian crosswalks in the foot traffic on South Congress.
Those sorts of things just make me feel more connected to Austin.  I like that feeling.

So thanks for indulging me.  I know you guys aren't all into this stuff, but I enjoy it and... IT'S MY BLOG!!!
Hahahahaha!!!  :-) 


Anonymous said...

It sounds like you really get a lot out of biking. I have to admit that I am surprised at how much you enjoy it - but I'm really glad you do. It's fun and it is good for you in so many ways. Please be careful in our Austin traffic. As you know from your own experiences, while you may be alert and careful, the other guy often is not.


Anonymous said...

What your dad said. :)

Maybe because I'm a father now, but be careful riding around out there. You ride to places that I would never ride to. Especially with all of those quiet hybrids in Austin.


J.S. said...

I appreciate the concern, but it's actually not all that scary. There are bike routes that you can take to avoid car traffic and streets with bike lanes and actual bike paths. I rarely wind up on a busy street that doesn't have a bike lane.
Maybe I'll explain how I try to minimize the risks in a subsequent post.
Still, you drivers keep an eye out for us cyclists! We have no choice but to keep an eye out for you...